It was with excitement and some trepidation that I met the highly respected doyenne of wine – widely considered the authority on the Asian wine market – Debra Meiburg MW.
For those not familiar with the title “MW”, this stands for “Master of Wine”, a qualification earned after a minimum of three years of professional involvement in wine and a further minimum of three years of immersive wine study. It’s not for the faint-hearted, and with an average pass rate of 18% in theory and practical, it’s no wonder only 370 people in the world have attained this esteemed title. Some of the assessment requirements verge on the masochistic; imagine blind tasting 36 wines from anywhere in the world and being asked to identify the origin, grape variety, winemaking style, age and quality level of each. Once an MW, you are admitted to the Institute of Masters of Wine, which asks its members “to seek opportunities to share their understanding of wine with others”.
It was therefore fitting that I met Debra at the first-year anniversary celebration of the state-of-the-art MWM Wine School in Wong Chuk Hang. Effervescent, warm and engaging, we discussed her passion for innovation in wine education and how her biggest thrill is still to teach and give everyone the opportunity to have that “aha” moment of discovering great wines, whatever their level of wine knowledge.
What is it about wine that excites you?
Wine is a fully immersive subject – it’s about history, language, culture and geography – so, for me, it’s about the total package. Since becoming a Master of Wine, my interests have extended to wine science, marketing and the psychology of marketing wines. But my main love is teaching others, at all levels, about wine and sharing my excitement with them.
How did you start as a wine educator?
It was my teacher, mentor and good friend Simon Tam, the head of Christie’s wine department, who got me started. I’m originally from Sonoma County, California, where we are hugely fond of the grape varietal Zinfandel. We revere our grape much as the Aussies love their Shiraz. So, when Simon started poking fun at Zinfandel, I rose to the challenge and went to great lengths to bring 24 bottles back to Hong Kong (back then, it wasn’t easy bringing wine into Hong Kong, due to import duties) to present to him. He said, why don’t you teach a class about the grape? And I’ve never looked back.
What’s your educational approach to someone who is new to wine?
Our presentation slides are striking, provocative and richly illustrated to give the students a sense of place – no more dry pyramids of wine classifications! We aim to get behind the soul of the wines and explain what makes them so unique. We use all the senses to do this – for example, we’ll ask students to dab lemon juice and chocolate on their tongues to assess their palates for acidity, sweetness and so on. And we have access to an extensive wine cellar, so we have an excellent variety of wines to taste. Tasting starts before class – we encourage all our students to get stuck in, taste, enjoy, discuss and immerse themselves in different wines.
We have innovative, fun ways to teach that are proving successful – for example, we use group participation of dressing up in costumes tied to wine styles. We could have a buff guy dressed in a ballerina tutu – representing Riesling – strong at the core, but essentially graceful. We’ll have someone dressed in a grass skirt, adorned with coconut cups and kiwis fruits – to represent the grassy, tropical aromas and palate of a Sauvignon Blanc. Of course, it’s all a lot of fun, but through visualisation, we consolidate learning.
What do you view as a measure of teaching success?
Wine is for everyone. Whether you are embarking on WSET* Level 1 or working your way all the way through to Diploma of Wine and beyond, I want to recreate that “aha” moment when I had my first wine class. I still teach all levels. For me, my measure of success is to see someone approach a class a little apprehensive and leave exhilarated, whether that’s just the one class they’ll take or whether they’re hungry to learn more. I also want my students to experiment. I want to push people to be braver and experience the diversity on offer to gain confidence with wine.
Is it easy to do this in Hong Kong?
The Hong Kong wine market has a problem – it’s very conservative and focused around wealth, which keeps it restricted to a few small regions such as Burgundy and Bordeaux. But there’s so much more out there. As a marketing, branding and PR agency, we work in about 15–20 wine regions and countries to build their presence in Hong Kong. We are having huge success with emerging countries and regions such as Georgia and Austria. Our students get exposure to these wines, which gives them a far more global picture.
Do you offer any courses on how to enjoy wine with food?
We run a wine and food pairing course, where we teach the fundamentals of the wine palate – tannins, acidity, sweetness and alcohol levels and how they influence one’s perception of food. For example, higher alcohol content combined with chilli make foods hotter, so if you’re serving Sichuan food and have guests who can’t take the heat, serve a low-alcohol wine. If they can’t get enough of it, serve a higher-alcohol wine such as an Australian Shiraz. The Cantonese table is complex, with multiple courses. So my advice is to find your centrepiece dish such as suckling pig or steamed grouper and match your wine to that, but drink want you want around that. At the end of the day, my belief is that beautiful food doesn’t need to perfectly match with beautiful wine.
We also run a sauce workshop that is a lot of fun and perhaps more relevant to Asian food. The traditional food and wine matching approach is to think about matching your protein – chicken, pork, beef, fish. But the reality is that Asian food uses sauces in a more diverse way than protein. We serve up to 16 sauces – light and dark soy, chilli, scallion oil, red bean, XO, stinky tofu – alongside an array of classic wine varietals and get people to experiment. Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling tend to be the winners. Again, it’s all about accessibility and play.
What have been some of your initiatives to educate the trade?
Over the past 10 years, we’ve had to be nimble and shift with market trends, which have hugely evolved. Innovation is a core value of the business. One of my biggest achievements was developing and writing a series of Asian-market trade guides (Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore), driven by trade needs. The trade needed clarification about how many importers there are, what’s selling, how many salespeople there are and how trade operates. It was a labour of love and a highly academic exercise.
WineSPIT is our trade association comprising a vibrant community of wine professionals. We run monthly workshops to help the trade to strengthen their training and professional skills.
We also run other initiatives such as the Women of Wine Festival (WOW), targeted at professional women. This group of women are of the executive mindset, but no one in the wine trade takes the time to talk to them. We thought, let’s introduce a conversation and start to support each other. So we asked panels of non-wine people, speaking from the fields of sport, media and tech, to talk alongside expert women winemakers and educators.
You travel at least two-thirds of the year. How do you maintain a work-life balance?
I don’t! The nature of the job is such that work and pleasure become blurred. I’ve just come back from a working road trip through Rioja. Last night, I had a dinner and vertical tasting of 19 Chateau Musar reds and six whites at the excellent Lebanese restaurant Zahrabel in Wanchai (I can’t recommend it highly enough!). Tonight we have the school anniversary party, tomorrow a wine-trade event and Sunday evening I’m dining and speaking at The Jockey Club about a retrospective of Harlan Estate. The work aligns all my natural interests, so it’s hard to separate the two, but of course there are times when I’m tired and miss my husband and cats, and then I’ll say, OK, now I need downtime. But I’ll come back to the beginning – it’s my classic work through the school and education that gives me energy and reminds me why I’m still here.
*WSET is the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. It is globally recognised as a consumer and trade educational programme leading to the Diploma in Wines and Spirits. MWM Wine School teaches Levels 1, 2 and 3, which are open to anyone to apply.
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